COMMENTARY// On the Hazards of Reductive Insularity, Or: Fuck Dancing, Let’s Make Art*

Michael Workman, “Swastika Sophie,” pen and ink on paper, 2015; image courtesy the artist.

By Michael Workman

It’s intriguing to me, in an era of growing awareness and acceptance of the concept of intersectionality, when more advances than ever have been made in pushing back against binary thinking, that the practitioners in certain art forms should react so negatively to diversification of practices within their respective fields.

I bring this up since, in recent weeks, a young dancer I was working with on a dance notation and choreographic project, dropped out of the effort (for the second time, actually), citing my lack of personal experience as a dancer and questioning whether or not I was qualified to produce “good” choreography. It’s a dismissal I’ve heard over my years of working in interdisciplinary modes that I’ve found most productive for my own artistic exploration, but which are often easily misunderstood qua those modes themselves. Recently, I’ve begun to describe my work as an exploration of the variants of “marks on a page;” literary writing and poetry, drawings and watercolors, or what used to be termed the “grammatologies,” as it were; and in this instance of the arrangements of a figure in space as an investigation into writing shattered into its constituent language- or basic, meaning-making participles. This is also backgrounded, for me, in my history of social and civic art-making practices, as an organizer of public art moments, happenings and events, all of which work outside traditional notions of the proscenium, of art off the pedestal, outside the academy or the institution.

Indeed, what for me this disputation helped expose was an awareness of what seems a divide between a certain sort of “purist” approach to the practice of dance-making, and perhaps an even professionally jealous willingness to reductively frame the art as bounded simply by its technique. It’s a not unfamiliar experience, having run into the various art mafias out there in their seemingless endless tribal configurations (especially in Chicago), that I should eventually encounter the dance mafia variant. It’s equally as surprising, frankly, since the dancer in question operates as much in the improvisational mode as anything and, well anyway, you’d have thought it an insistent obstinence we’d have left behind at least since Rauschenberg first dared to call himself a choreographer with his 1963 work Pelican, for which he provided instructions on movement to dancer Carolyn Brown. At least if you knew the history.

In any case, it’s long since obvious that dance simply isn’t reducible to technique and, just like any other art form, isn’t neatly reducible to its craft. Now, I’m certainly not coming to this notion of choreography in anything like the more traditional understanding of dance choreography and, honestly, that approach isn’t overall that interesting to me artistically. My approach is, ultimately, one of relative disinterest in the more common engagement with dance choreography proper, and more of an exploration, invention and appropriation of the notion from dance, one that I then interject into a perhaps, initially, seeming unrelated context. I’m thinking, for instance, of Mårten Spångberg as a contemporary corollary, though the interest for me reaches back into and through visual, literary art and poetics in a way it may not for him (though our approaches do otherwise converge on the necessity of producing work that confounds the appropriation attempts of neoliberalism).

For me, this shakes out more, ultimately, as a kind of performance choreography, if my more purist readers will permit my further bastardization of the term, if in a dance mode, one in which my thoughts on it lately seem to have been leading me, for instance, to incorporate the movement study of actually hanging myself as an investigation of this performance concept of “dancing at the end of a rope,” for instance, as part of the Neo-Judson program I am developing to revisit and reevaluate, and perhaps even update the widely-recognized transformational influence of Postmodern philosophy on dance, visual and performing arts of the era. In this instance, for example, my immediate interest is in an implicit exploration of discursive language and its elision into an instance of performative action. It’s as much an interrogation of the art form as it is an inhabitation of its precepts and investigation of its techniques as seen through a reframing of them in new and perhaps reassuring, if alarmingly different, contexts.

Mårten Spångberg, image courtesy The Guardian.

So, in a sense, I think it’s crucially important to use the term “choreography,” since it appeals to my interest in the socio-cultural appropriation that my work is at times particularly about. My ideal outcome, of course, is an expansion of the form and vocabulary of both dance and performance art, as I see what I’m doing as operating at an intersection between them both, rather than allowing myself to readily get packed into one or the other box. Similarly, that’s how I feel about jumping into any such designated category under the heading of “graphic novelist” or “dance/art critic,” though I’ve made work that appeals to each of these designations, as readily as they do “poet,” “visual artist,” “reporter,” “producer/director,” “semiotician,” “colorist” or whatever other terms I could come up with that suit the range of available modes or media. Each, taken alone, seem an unsophisticated, reductive framing mechanism despite the artistic project that backgrounds all of these different categories, which at a baseline is, for me, philosophically multidisciplinary in its approach, and not afforded sufficient descriptive power by any single one of these terms.

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*The title, of course, is a wry play on the phrase “Fuck Art, Let’s Dance” that started popping up on T-shirts in the U.K. in the 1970’s, and has since gone through innumerable permutations, all essentially condemning the vacuousness of the interchangeability of these terms whenever generally applied to limitation of human, emotional or artistic work for the purposes of utilitarianism.

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